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By May Wong
AP Technology Writer

Christina Rainie had been trying to reach her friend for three days. For some reason, he wasn’t responding to her wireless text messages, online instant messages or cell phone calls.

When the pair of University of Georgia freshmen finally did make contact on the fourth day, they argued – heated cell phone exchanges interspersed with apologetic text messages.

A frustrated Rainie decided she no longer wanted him to be her date for the upcoming sorority dance.

“Three days? It’s like eternity!” she explained.

For a generation accustomed to near-instantaneous keeping in touch – primarily via instant messaging, cell phones and e-mail – Rainie’s complaint doesn’t seem so far-fetched, especially since she and her generational peers are perfectly comfortable roaming in a social sphere where real face-to-face encounters take a backseat to cyber contact.

Yet it’s unclear whether the relative ease of digital communication boosts or harms developing young adults. While it may widen social circles, it also raises questions about whether skills suffer for handling the vibrant, breathing real world.

“Sometimes I long for the days when kids went outside and played and were not so wired,” said Sid Royer, a Seattle lawyer with an 18-year-old daughter and a son, 21. “To some extent, it affects their creativity and their attention span, and there’s a desire to have everything immediately.”

Then again, “were it not for cell phones and e-mails, I’d have much less contact with both my children” who both are away at school.

For better or worse, the new era is here.

Young couples profess puppy love for each other in their instant-messaging profiles. For teens, blogs and other Internet journals – which are public or semi-public – have become confessionals that can take gossip to a whole new level, fanning the flames of campus rumors and scandals.

Others are creating study groups and “poking” each other – essentially saying, “hey” – via a popular new online network called thefacebook now found at 200 colleges and universities.

“Digital devices are the social lubricant now,” said Derek White, an executive vice president at Alloy Inc., a youth marketing and research firm.

While their time spent in front of the computer and online has grown, teens are now spending less time on other social activities. In a 2004 survey of youths aged 13 to 18, White said the number of teens going to the mall and out on dates dropped by five percent, compared to 1997. Those going to dances decreased by 10 percent.

Chris Saribay, 17, of Hawaii, quit the regular school scene altogether for an all-online public high school, where he watches video lectures and frequently instant messages or e-mails his teachers. But the junior is anything but lonely – he has friends from all over the world and has maxed out the allowed instant messaging buddy list of 200.

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